habitat interior
Image: Thomas Cobb

A model of an Ideabox living room, as shown at this year’s Portland Home & Garden Show

When the Murrays started looking for an inexpensive manufactured home to put on their property—“the quickest thing we could put out there that would make us happy,” Celia says—their choices seemed pretty bleak. On one end were standard single-wides and double-wides, like those sold on industry leader Palm Harbor Homes’ model lot. There, a three-bedroom, 1,188-square-foot Ritz I retails for $49,995, including wall-to-wall carpet, appliances, and fake plastic columns flanking the optional bay window. It wasn’t what the Murrays had in mind, and when they asked whether the interior finishes in some inexpensively built homes release harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde—a common concern in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—they got no answers.

Then there were high-end, architect-designed products like those named above. The Murrays liked the look of the Glidehouse, an elder sister to the Sunset Breezehouse designed by Bay Area architect Michelle Kaufmann, with its open-plan living area, walls of sliding glass, natural wood exterior, eco-friendly no-VOC paint, and sustainably harvested bamboo floors. But at $250 per square foot, it was well out of the Murrays’ price range—comparable, in fact, to having a house custom-designed and built on-site. (A note about pricing: For obvious reasons, the cost of a factory-built home doesn’t include building the foundation; hooking up water, sewer, and electrical lines; and paying for local inspections. The Murrays estimated those costs would add about $40,000 to their prefab home. If you wanted to erect one on an empty lot in Portland, you’d also have to buy the land.)

Then Patrick and Celia discovered the Ideabox. Yes, the siding is corrugated metal and fiber cement rather than natural wood, but inside is a smartly designed living space: two bedrooms, two baths, a spacious kitchen, and a tiny living area arranged in enfilade, allowing for long sight lines and no space-wasting corridors. Big sliding glass doors open onto a deck (sold separately) to bring in natural light and the sense of extra space.

Company founder Russell, a former residential energy-efficiency analyst with the Oregon Department of Energy, saves costs partly by contracting with a Salem plant that churns out the same kinds of standard mobile homes you find on lots like Palm Harbor’s. So the Murrays’ 840-square-foot Confluence Modern model (there’s also the 400-square-foot Northwest Modern and the 625-square-foot Island Cottage) comes at a manufactured-home price of $85,000—less than half the per-square-foot cost of a Michelle Kaufmann home.

In other words, the Ideabox comes remarkably close to achieving that mix of efficient design, honest structural expression, and affordability that has long been the ideal of modern architecture. So far, counting the Murrays’, Russell has sold 14 houses. It may not seem like much, but it’s a start.